OHS legal changes you might have missed

If you needed confirmation that the mainstream media is disinterested in occupational health and safety (OHS) unless there is a disaster or the incident can be narrowly categorised as sexual harassment, bullying or suicide, last week, the Australian Parliament passed important amendments to the Model Work Health and Safety laws. It seems OHS cannot compete with sexual harassment laws (I’m okay with that) or Industrial Relations (or Australia’s wins in the World Cup).

On December 1 2022, Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke‘s Second Reading Speech included the removal of insurance policies that could pay for financial penalties awarded against OHS breaches and a pledge to put Industrial manslaughter back on the national agenda.

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When a ban is an understandable stunt

Australia has yet to offer a good reason for hazardous engineered stone products not being banned from import and use. On November 23 2022, Australia’s most influential construction union, the CFMEU, stated that it would ban these products from mid-2024 if the Federal Government does not. Trade unions no longer have the level of influence or numbers to achieve these sorts of bans. As with asbestos many years ago, such campaigns risk taking more credit for the potential occupational safety and health reforms than they deserve.

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Some good presenters, some great, but OHS conferences need more work

What was missing most from the recent conference of the Asia Pacific Occupational Safety and Health Organisation was a strong Asia-Pacific voice. Certainly, there were presentations by Asian OHS professionals and some westerners working in Asia, but the keynote speakers were almost from Anglo-European cultures. This made it hard to understand if the conference was designed for Asian safety and health professionals to learn from us or for Australians to learn from them. Perhaps it was just for all of us to learn as a profession.

Some of the keynote speakers offered universal suggestions for improving the management of workplace health and safety, but perhaps these were so universal as to be generic or safe. For instance, one of the greatest challenges for the Asian region, in particular, is ensuring the safety of migrant workers. There was one mention of the deaths of the World Cup construction workers, and that was in passing.

Below is a summary of the conference and some of the occupational health and safety issues (OHS) raised.

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You don’t have to talk about OHS to talk about OHS

On November 16 2022, Tony Burke, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, spoke at the National Press Club in Canberra. Although his portfolio has occupational health and safety (OHS), workplace health and safety was mentioned only once in passing. In this instance, that’s okay because he is trying to pass a major piece of industrial relations (IR) law. But some of his speech raised issues related to work or how businesses are managed, which do have important OHS contexts.

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Dan Andrews and “safe jobs” and People versus Profit

“Jobs” is a term regularly used in election campaigns as creating jobs can provide wealth directly to those working and less directly to their employers. But rarely are “safe jobs” mentioned.  The Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews mentioned “safe jobs” in his campaign speech for the election later this month.  Perhaps more interesting is his pledge to put people before profit.

Andrews was speaking of his success in creating 600,000 jobs since he came to power eight years ago.  He said:

“…..when we came to government, we promised we’d get Victoria back to work. Since then, we’ve created nearly 600,000 jobs. More than 300,000 since September 2020. But it’s not just jobs. We want them to be good, secure, safe jobs. It’s why we introduced Australia’s first-ever wage theft laws. And it’s why we made workplace manslaughter exactly what it is: a crime. But when it comes to making Victoria stronger, safer and fairer, our work is far from over.”

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Curious economic modelling on OHS

During October’s National Safe Work Month, Safe Work Australia released an important evaluation of the economics of occupational health and safety (OHS). The report, prepared by Deloitte, received minimal attention from the mainstream media who was more focussed on Treasurer Jim Chalmers‘ first national budget statement.

The timing of the report’s release seems unfortunate as work health and safety was almost totally absent from the Treasurer’s budget papers. It is doubly unfortunate as the information in the report focuses so much on the national economic context of managing OHS. The data and modelling may be fresh, but all it seems to achieve is to reinforce that managing work health and safety is important and that not doing so is expensive and presents missed opportunities. We’ve known this for decades from various extensive reports from the Productivity Commission and the Industry Commission before that.

SafetyAtWorkBlog was able to put some questions to Safe Work Australia’s Director, Data Analysis, Phillip Wise.

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More OHS activists needed

The Australian Government is set to introduce new workplace sexual harassment laws and obligations through Parliament. In The Saturday Paper on November 5 2022 (paywalled), businesswoman Lucy Hughes Turnbull wrote a short article that reminds us of the purpose of the new laws.

“The whole idea of the Me Too movement and the Respect@Work report was to make workers safer. So it was surprising that the politicians who resisted some of the Jenkins recommendations are often the ones most willing to drape themselves in worker safety gear. Protection from abuse and harassment is another key aspect of safety, like guardrails and fire exit signs. Now the legal system recognises it as such.
This latest work safety bill is the best gift the parliament could give to mark the fifth anniversary of the global Me Too movement. Together with more paid parental leave and greater access to more affordable childcare, it has been a great few weeks for women and indeed all Australians.”

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